In “Perempuan”, a collection of 31 stories from young Muslim women in Singapore, Joyene Nazatul talks about being lesbian, Malay, and the target of rape jokes.
I’m a lesbian. I present myself in a masculine way – I wear my hair in a short undercut and I dress primarily in male clothing, like dress shirts. On the surface, I’ve been told I pass as a man and I’ve gotten away with going into the male toilet numerous times. I’m also very tanned, and despite my mixed heritage, I am often assumed to be a Malay Muslim. They are not entirely wrong – I’m part Malay and was brought up in a Muslim family. My relationship with the religion is complicated, but that’s a story for another time.
Being very obviously gay while looking like a Malay Muslim is tough. You get stares from all the makciks and pakciks (aunties and uncles) constantly, and sometimes they think they have a right to comment on your choices. I’ve struggled with it for years, but in recent times I’ve learnt to walk down a crowded street with blinders on and avoid any and all eye contact.
I also make a concerted effort to speak only in English and pretend not to understand when someone speaks to me in Malay so as to not give any clues as to my ethnicity. It works mostly so I am spared some condescending looks and judgment. Being racially and religiously ambiguous lends me an extra layer of Kevlar and protects me against the usual “Kenapa kau buat macam gini?” and “Kau tak sunonoh.” (“Why are you like this?” and “You’re disgusting.”) Well, mostly at least.
Sometimes I forget to strap on my armour. It’s hard to be on guard all the time. Sometimes in conversation I might let slip a Malay word or order my nasi padang with a bit too much familiarity. Usually these are short interactions that I can get out of easily, but once in a while, it happens when you least expect it in the worst possible situation.
It was a Wednesday morning. It was raining and I woke up late for work. I rushed to get ready and called a cab. When it came, I got in, feeling flustered, trying to catch my breath.
The cab driver asked me, “Kau pangil teksi?” (“You called for a taxi?”)
On any other day I would have pretended not to understand him. I would have asked him to repeat himself in English and that would have been the end of the conversation, but I wasn’t thinking and I responded, in Malay.
He’s barely driven off before he speaks again.
“Kau ni perempuan atau jantan?” (“Are you female or male?”)
I felt blood rushing to my face as I struggled for an answer. Either way, I knew I was damned.
I stuttered, “Perempuan.” I know it’s a bad idea the moment those words left my mouth. (“Female.”)
“Kenapa kau potong rambut kau pendek sangat? Siapo izinkan kau rupa macan lelaki?” (“Then why do you cut your hair so short? Who gave you permission to look like a man?”)
I freeze. I immediately regret getting in the front seat. I don’t know what to say and all that’s running through my head is the best way to escape a moving car. I think jumping out might hurt less than staying in the cab, but decide against it. I force out a nervous laugh. He doesn’t respond and just continues driving.
In my head I’ve already planned what I’m going to do in case he reaches over and tries something: Snap his wrists. Reach for the steering wheel. Smash his head into the window and get his leg off the accelerator. Steer the car to safety.
Make sure I come out of this alive.
He continues driving without saying another word. Part of me heaves a sigh of relief, but the other part of me has my hand in a fist around my keys, like a cobra coiled, ready to strike.
A couple of years before this, I was 20 and in the midst of a driving lesson. My instructor said, “Aku tahu kau jenis apa. Kau suka perempuan kan?” Again, I forced a nervous laugh. (“I know what kind you are. You like women right?”)
“Kau lucky aku bukan macam dulu. Kalau aku muda, aku taruk kau dalam bilik, tak kasi kau balik sampai kau suka lelaki.” (“You’re lucky I’m not like my old self. When I was younger, I would have put you in a room, and not let you out until you like men.”)
Again, my hands turned into fists, gripping the steering wheel so tightly I thought it might break. I was driving on a busy road and I was concentrating so much on not crashing the car that I couldn’t think much about it. He continued talking as if he hadn’t just threatened me with rape. He talked about Islam and its teachings, all the while cracking jokes with me. So by the time I’d driven the car back to the lot, I’d already brushed the entire incident off as a joke and continued with my life. I wasn’t going to make a mountain out of a molehill.
But on Wednesday, as the cab I was in climbed the hill to my office, I felt a bread of perspiration travel down my neck. My hands turned white from clenching my keys. I shot a text to a friend to tell her what was happening, specifying the license plate number of the car because I was afraid my body was going to end up in a ditch and no one was going to know what had happened to me.
I was afraid for my life.
In Singapore, we talked about gay bashings and honour killings in a very detached way. We don’t know what it’s actually like. We don’t know how it feels to really be afraid of someone, anyone, coming up to you in broad daylight and shooting you in the face or bashing your head in with a baseball bat. It doesn’t happen here, but it could. It could have happened to me more than twice. How many other people suffer aggressions like this, everyday, and never say anything about it?
For me it was just another day. It was just another incident. I got out of the cab and rushed to work, late. I sat down at my desk and felt the fear slowly subside. I continued with my life, but as I sit writing this, the fear comes rushing back to me. The years of cat calls and threats, stares and judgment resurface. I struggle to breathe.
Joyene is a filmmaker and writer. She wrote and directed a short film, To Mum (Love, Me), featured both locally and internationally at film festivals and Viddsee, and wrote for the long-form series, Tanglin. She is one half of queer art collective Masqueerades, and is a hockey player.
Perempuan includes 31 personal accounts by young Muslim women in Singapore. The first of its kind e-book offers essays and poems that explore issues of gender and sexuality, body image, and cultural identity. Written mostly in English, with a couple appearing also in Malay, the essays and poems focus on the issues of gender and sexuality, body image, and cultural identity.
The e-book is curated by Gender Equality Is Our Culture (GEC), an AWARE project aimed at promoting greater understanding that women’s rights are compatible with the culture of Muslims in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Featured Image: Designed by Nabilah Husna for AWARE